(dpa) - In comments seen as boosting bids by Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join NATO, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Wednesday that he expected the alliance's summit in Bucharest to welcome "several new members from south-east Europe."
The NATO chief was addressing a meeting of Young Atlanticists which took place just hours before heads of government and state from NATO's 26 member states were due to gather in the Romanian capital.
"Our summit will demonstrate that ... consolidating Europe remains a major task for NATO. I expect that the summit will open NATO's door to several new members from South-East Europe," he said.
The three Western Balkan countries all hope to be offered invitations to join the alliance during the three-day gathering.
But Macedonia's bid is hampered by opposition from Athens, which is threatening to veto its entry because it views Macedonia's name as implying a territorial claim on Greece's northern province.
And some diplomats argue that Albania should modernize its military and carry out more reforms before it is allowed to join NATO.
Ahead of the summit, analysts questioned whether either would receive an invitation in Bucharest, saying that Croatia could end up being the only one to be asked to join the alliance at this stage.
The NATO chief said he expected NATO to also create closer ties with other countries born from the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, as well as with Ukraine and Georgia.
"And that will also help make our continent more stable and more secure," he said.
Such comments were unlikely to go down well in Moscow, where officials have already warned that offering membership action plans to Ukraine and Georgia, which both border Russia, would lead to "a dramatic evolution" in NATO-Russia relations.
The Bucharest summit, which was officially due to start on Wednesday evening and end on Friday afternoon, will be the alliance's biggest ever.
As well as leaders from the 26-strong alliance, it will also be attended by officials from applicant countries and by the highest-ranking officials of the European Union and the United Nations.
Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to attend a NATO-Russia council meeting on Friday while Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be invited to submit his views on the alliance's operations in his country.
Speaking in Bucharest ahead of the summit, US President George W Bush said NATO should stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to defeat the terrorists.
"Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight in Afghanistan," he said in a speech delivered at the National Bank of Savings.